Sunday, August 29, 2010

Revolution in the lunch line? The Republican-American

Revolution in the lunch line? The Republican-American

Quote of the Day: Cipriano laughed at a reporter's inquiry about Tater Tots.
"Are you kidding me? We don't have that crap in our schools. We don't even have chicken nuggets." Cipriano said. Roasted chicken is among the top sellers in New Haven. "It has bones in it, it's real chicken."

Revolution in the lunch line?

Switch to healthy food may need 'baby steps'


The chicken nugget, long a fixture of school cafeteria menus, is very much alive but under attack. Chocolate milk may be next.

From the highest levels of government to the kitchens of local schools, the reasons to serve healthier food have grown increasingly clear: According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five children is obese.

Alarms have been ringing for years, but chicken nuggets, pizza and cheeseburgers remain mainstays on school menus statewide, even as food service directors balance a desire to serve more wholesome alternatives to processed foods high in fat and salt against cost, availability, and habits.

"It needs baby steps," said Michael P. Allen, food services director at Education Connection, who runs cafeterias in Litchfield, New Hartford, Torrington and Thomaston schools, as well as at Connecticut Junior Republic.

Allen's September menus celebrate "National Whole Grains Month" and note that the oven-baked french fries are served free of trans fat. Pizza remains a Friday fixture, and processed chicken nuggets will greet Thomaston students on their first day back Tuesday.

Allen said cost is a major reason that processed foods remain a staple. In Torrington, he runs a roughly $1.5 million food program that requires acrobatic budgeting to survive without local tax dollars. Torrington Middle School students not eligible for federally funded free or reduced-price meals will pay $2.10 for their chicken patty on wheat roll with lettuce and tomato, oven-baked fries, green beans and mixed fruit when classes resume Tuesday. Allen said it actually costs about $2.75 to produce that tray, partially offset by a federal subsidy of 26 cents. Like all food service directors, he is constantly hunting for savings, grants and efficiencies.

"I can't feed your kids everything that you want me to feed them and still make your budget," Allen said.

Raising lunch prices is a tough sell, and healthy options can be an even tougher sell given the well-established eating habits of students. Allen put brown rice on the menu last year, and watched much of it wind up in the garbage. Kids were just not used to it.

"We're going to be putting, for the first time, homemade mashed potatoes on the menu in October," Allen said. He's hoping for the best, but takes a pragmatic view. He's feeding many children whose home menus are riddled with frozen foods and junk food snacks. "You're not going to change the tastes, or educate people overnight."

The "baby steps" approach is not universal. In New Haven, where cafeterias serve 20,000 students every day, Chef Timothy Cipriano long since abolished the chicken nugget, and has drawn national recognition for it.

Cipriano, executive director of food services in New Haven, was one of nine school chefs invited to the White House in march to help kick off the Chefs Move to Schools program, part of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, which has set an ambitious agenda to wipe out childhood obesity in a generation. Cipriano laughed at a reporter's inquiry about Tater Tots.

"Are you kidding me? We don't have that crap in our schools. We don't even have chicken nuggets," Cipriano said. Roasted chicken is among the top sellers in New Haven. "It has bones in it, it's real chicken."

Winsted Food Service Director Art Lehne is contemplating elimination of flavored milk.

Winsted Food Service Director Art Lehne is contemplating elimination of flavored milk.

"In just the little experience I've had up there, you've got to give it time," Lehne said. He agrees with Allen that discarded food, if not an outright cafeteria rebellion, is the price to be paid for such change. "You're trying to change their eating habits. To change it, you're going to have to bite the bullet a little bit."

Allen has ordered 2,550 individual servings of milk for the first week at the 1,100-student Torrington Middle School, including 1,300 chocolate milks, 200 strawberry-flavored milks and 400 vanilla milks. He'll have 600 servings of white milk to sell, 25 skim milks and 25 servings of 2 percent reduced fat milk.

Susan Harris, the cafeteria manager at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, is also doing things differently. Her menu for August and September does start with chicken nuggets on Monday, but there's a vegetable quiche option. On Sept. 17, the main meal of stuffed crust pizza will be served with an a la carte alternative of lime chipotle tilapia. Baked fish is also an a la carte alternative on Thursday.

"They seem to fly out of here," Harris said of the a la carte alternatives to more traditional options.

Harris spends about $300 a week on produce from a Hartford distributor, and much of it is local when the season allows, though Region 1 schools are not listed among the participants in the state Department of Agriculture's Farm to School program, which seeks to encourage consumption of locally-grown produce.

The actual volume of food funneled through that program accounts for a fraction of total consumption. Allen said its impact on last year's menus was limited, mainly, to apples from Hayward Orchard in New Hartford. It was an unusually good year, Allen said, with an early harvest and supplies that held, thanks to cold storage, into April.

Bruce H. Gresczyk, the former state agriculture commissioner, runs with his family a New Hartford farm that cultivates 80 acres vegetables, about half of it corn, the largest produce producer in Litchfield County. He said school menus could carry much more locally-grown produce, despite a short growing season, if educators and parents demanded it.

"It's a shame when you see schools that buy from companies that don't even deal with local growers," Gresczyk said, noting that Wallingford-based Thurston Foods dominates the wholesale school food market. (That includes Allen's order for Torrington Middle School, which included a case of romaine lettuce, a case of green leaf lettuce, 50 pounds of carrots, 15 cases of cucumbers, four cases of green peppers, five pounds of spinach, one case each of apples and oranges, five pounds of carrot sticks, nine bunches of bananas, three bags of grapes, four watermelons, five honey dew melons, and five cantaloupes to be delivered Tuesday.)

Connecticut farmers can deliver potatoes into December, squashes into January, but they won't show up in school cafeterias unless food service directors demand it from their wholesale supplies, Gresczyk said.

"If the demand is there, we're going to find out a way to grow it," Gresczyk said.

No comments:

Post a Comment